Red Light, Green Light
Have you ever thought how much our safety and well-being depends on others? When we are in a bus or a car, we can approach a busy intersection and, when the light is green, drive straight through. We can drive through this busy intersection on a green light and expect to be safe because the driver knows that the light for the cross-road is red. This is possible because we have learned and follow the rules of the road, and trust that other people on the road will do the same. If something went wrong and all the lights at intersections turned green at the same time imagine the chaos.
Parenting is a challenging responsibility. It is often rewarding. However, we can all remember times when it can be exasperating. And we can’t rely on red lights and green lights to direct us.
Parent: It’s time for bed.
Child: I’m not tired.
Parent: OK dear, let me know when you’re ready.
Parent: It’s time for school.
Child: I don’t want to go to school.
Parent: OK dear, perhaps you’ll feel like it tomorrow.
Parent: Remember to look both ways and then check again when you cross the road.
Child: I don’t have to!
Parent: __________ [Fill in the blank, or imagine the consequences if this pattern of parenting continues.]
We all have to learn the rules of the road if we want to be safe. Our children have to learn the rules of growing-up if they are to survive and thrive – to realise their potential in the world. Without rules there will be chaos and danger. With too many rules there will be rigidity and no room for children to develop their potential. It is our responsibility as parents to get the balance right.
When we talk about rules and children we are talking about discipline. Discipline for children is about teaching the rules of growing up. Of course, there’s a lot more to growing up than rules – like love and friendship, curiosity and interest, fun and activity. But for now, in this article, I’m just going to be talking about discipline. The rules have to be just right – not too many and not too few, and not too strict and not too lax – if we want our children to survive and thrive.
It’s easy to get stuck in the principles of a traditional system of “discipline” that links wrongdoing and punishment (“make the punishment fit the crime”). This traditional approach teaches us that discipline is about wrongdoing being addressed by appropriate punishment. In criminal justice and institutional settings, the concept of a “progressive discipline” approach (which teaches the more frequent and more serious the wrongdoing, the greater the punishment) is well known. This approach to discipline tends to result in a mixture of retribution (pay-back) and punishment. We should not confuse the discipline of employees in institutional settings, like the workplace, and the punishment of criminals with raising our children. Discipline for children is about shaping and changing their behaviour; it is not about punishing them.
So if discipline is not about punishment but rather about shaping and changing children’s behaviour, what specifically does this involve?
Disciplining children is about:
(a) Teaching them rules to guide their behaviour,
(b) Encouraging appropriate behaviour,
(c) Discouraging inappropriate behaviour,
(d) Providing the right learning environment, and
(e) Setting a good example as a parent.
It might help us remember what disciplining children is about if we use the reminder RAISE and be aware that to help us raise our children to thrive, we need to be familiar with and apply the following basic principles of discipline:
Rules to guide behaviour
Appropriate behaviour encouraged
Inappropriate behaviour discouraged
Setting – the right learning environment
Example of the parent
Let’s look at the five basic principles of discipline for children, one by one.
Five Basic Principles of Discipline for Children
a) Rules: Disciplining children is partly about teaching them rules
As parents, we consciously or unconsciously teach our children a particular set of rules, a code of conduct. Many rules make up this code of conduct. For example, everyday rules such as; “Wash your hands before you come to table,” “Don’t speak with your mouth full,” “Say thank-you when someone gives you something,” “Finish eating before you leave the table” are some of the familiar rules to do with mealtimes that might contribute to such a code of conduct. Taken together, rules like these, and many more like them, make up the mortar that holds families and communities together and makes our lives in society possible.
It’s important to remember a few things about rules:
Prioritize rules. Give top priority to safety, then to correcting behaviour that harms people and property, and then to behaviour such as whining, temper tantrums, and interruption
Concentrate on one or two rules at a time and gradually introduce another when the previous rules have been learned
Be certain that a rule is necessary and then, when you are sure it is an important one, make it as simple and straightforward as possible
Not all families have the same rules. Different families have different codes of conduct. Parents from different families and different cultures have their own ideas about what rules are important for their children to learn
The way that parents discipline children changes from generation to generation and varies from culture to culture. For example, physical punishment, threatening, intimidating, shaming, belittling and insulting treatment, that have all been used as ways of disciplining children in the past, are increasingly regarded as misguided and harmful
Different situations may require different rules. Even when the importance of a rule has been agreed upon, it may change from one circumstance to another. For example, in the company of trustworthy adults, it might make sense, in some situations, to tell a young child, “Adults know best.” However, in the company of adults who take advantage of children, you would want your child to know, “Not all adults can be trusted.”
b) Appropriate behaviour: Disciplining children is partly about encouraging them to behave appropriately
As parents we need to have strategies to systematically teach and strengthen behaviours we regard as appropriate and desirable.
We need to help our children to learn behaviours that:
Meet our expectations as parents
Effectively help our children to get along with others and make friends
Help our children develop a sense of self-discipline
Encourage our children to feel good about themselves (positive self-regard).
To increase the chances of our children doing what we want them to do it is important to:
Reinforce desirable behaviour. Praise positive behaviour and “Catch them being good.”
Let our children know the behaviours that we value and wish to encourage so that they understand what is valued.
Make sure that the “acceptable” and “appropriate” behaviour is attainable (Are our children able to understand and appreciate what we are asking of them?).
Attend to our children carefully so that we increase the liklihood of them behaving positively.
Show interest in and attend to our children’s school and out-of-school activities.
c) Inappropriate behaviour: Disciplining children is partly about discouraging inappropriate behaviour
As parents we need to find discipline strategies to reduce or eliminate inappropriate behaviour, behaviour that we regard as undesirable or ineffective.
Undesirable behaviour includes:
Behaviour that places the child or others in danger
Non-compliance with reasonable expectations and demands of the parents or other appropriate adults (e.g., relatives, teachers, health professionals)
Behaviour that interferes with positive social interactions and self-discipline.
Some of these behaviours require an immediate response because of danger or risk to the child or others. Other undesirable behaviours require a consistent consequence to prevent generalization of the behaviour to other situations.
Some guidelines include:
Ignore the small stuff, and remove or withhold your attention to decrease the frequency and intensity of undesirable behaviour.
Provide a strong and immediate initial consequence when the problem behaviour first occurs. (e.g., Event: Brother hits sister with his plastic bat. Consequence: “Give me the bat, please. You cannot have a bat until you know how to use it properly.” It would make good sense not to return the bat to him the same day.)
Provide an appropriate consequence, consistently, each time the problem behaviour occurs. (e.g., Event: An eight-year-old is late arriving at the breakfast table. Consequence: “You are late for breakfast, so you will be early to bed.” Having said this, it is important to follow through and do so fairly – 5 minutes late for breakfast means 5 minutes early for bed.)
Suggest alternative acceptable behaviour to replace the problem behaviour, whenever possible. (e.g., Event: John screams at his brother and pushes him away. Response and suggestion: “It looks like you’re angry about your brother wanting to play with your Lego. You could tell him in your usual voice that you want to play with the Lego by yourself.”)
Provide a reason for the consequence of a specific behaviour, which helps children, once they are beyond the toddler stage, to learn the appropriate behaviour, and improves their overall compliance with requests from adults. (e.g., “I took the bat away from you because you had just hit your sister with it. It’s not OK to hit your sister.”)
Couple the elimination of undesirable behaviour with a strategy to stimulate more desirable behaviour. This increases the effectiveness of discipline. (e.g., “I won’t let you hit your brother. If you’re upset or angry about something to do with your brother, you can tell him while I listen. I’ll help you work things out with him.”)
d) Setting: Disciplining children is partly about providing them with the right learning environment
We need to provide a learning environment that includes supportive parent-child relationships and positive responses to the child’s attempts to master what they say and do.
Techniques of discipline are most effective when they:
Occur in the context of a loving and secure relationship. Parent’s responses to children’s behaviour, whether approving or disapproving, are likely to have the greatest effect in this context because the parent’s approval is important to children in this kind of parent-child relationship.
Occur in the context which enables the child to feel stable and cared for by a competent adult. This sense of affection and security leads to the development of a sense of personal worth.
To provide a loving, secure parent-child relationship, we need to:
Maintain a positive emotional tone in the home through play, parental warmth and affection for the child;
Provide consistency in the forms of regular times and patterns for daily activities and interactions to reduce resistance, convey respect for the child, and make negative experiences less stressful.
As our children respond to the positive nature of the relationship and consistent discipline, the need for frequent negative interaction decreases, and the quality of the relationship improves for both parent and child. As the parent-child relationship becomes increasingly comfortable, our child’s sense of personal worth is further strengthened.
e) Example: Disciplining children is partly about providing them with the right example
We also need to model respectful communication, orderly, predictable behaviour, and collaborative strategies to encourage desirable behaviour and resolve conflict.
We need to:
Model orderly, predictable behaviour, respectful communication;
Encourage collaborative conflict resolution strategies;
Recognize that the best educators of children are people who are good role models, who our children care enough about to want to imitate and please.
Red Light, Green Light
Red light – Stop. Green light – Go. We need to master these rules of the road if we and those around us are to be safe on the roads. It’s always good to get a green light and we sometimes get frustrated if we “hit” a red light – but it’s better than hitting anything else. We all like to get our own way and young people are no exception. It is natural for young people to want to do things their way, be curious, adventurous, see how far and how fast they can go, be quick to explore new possibilities and quick to be upset when parents put the breaks on. They want green lights all the time. But as parents we know how quickly that leads to chaos and danger.
We have to teach our children rules that will enable them to survive and thrive – keep them safe and give them the best opportunities to develop their potential to the fullest. This process of teaching them what they need to know is discipline. Good discipline for children is discipline applied with great care and caring. Too many rules and our children will become dependent, always expecting to be told what to do and never learning the most important aspect of discipline: self-discipline. Too few rules and we put them at risk: risk to their safety and risk of not learning the important everyday rules of life, the rules that enable us to live together agreeably, peacefully and successfully in families and communities and contribute to the society in which we live.
Canadian Paediatric Society (2004). Effective discipline for children, Position Paper. Paediatric Child Health; 9:1
Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, American Association of Pediatricians (1998). Guidance for Effective Discipline. Pediatrics 998; 101:723-728